As therapists, we know breathing is a helpful tool for calming the mind and nervous system...
But many times, our clients meet this recommendation with skepticism.
When I’ve brought up breathing to clients, I’ve seen the initial, “I’m paying you for this
?” look more than once.
I’m breathing right now. I breathed yesterday, and the day before that. And I’ll breathe every day from now until I die.
So, the question becomes: Why emphasize something you’re already doing?
Because breathing the right way
is the key to reducing some of the symptoms that brought your clients to therapy in the first place. Let me explain. Normal breathing and diaphragmatic breathing are NOT the same thing.
This is critical to understand. Diaphragmatic breathing is when you fill your whole diaphragm with air, breathing fully in, and fully out. This is different from what most of our breathing tends to look like day to day, which is usually “chest breathing.”
Chest breathing is faster and much shallower. It doesn’t utilize our entire diaphragm. Chest breathing can be associated with a heightened stress response, increased toxins in the body, and less oxygen in the brain, and is usually not very healthy.
However, it’s what we’re all used to. Creating healthier breathing habits takes training. To reduce anxiety, you must breathe through the diaphragm. All other breathing is pointless (other than it keeps you alive).
The mistake a lot of people make when practicing breathing exercises is that they don’t actually breathe through the diaphragm. Maybe it’s because they don’t know how to. Or, or perhaps they think they are (but actually aren’t).
For most people, there seems to be a lack of understanding regarding how important this is, so I want to emphasize this. If you are not breathing through your diaphragm during a mindful breathing exercise, you’re wasting your time. Breathing through the diaphragm activates the vagus nerve; vagus nerve activation is what reduces your anxiety.
The vagus nerve is a complex cranial nerve that runs from the brain to the abdomen, touching most major organs along the way.
When you inhale deeply your diaphragm expands, putting pressure on the vagus nerve-wrapped organs nearby. This pressure activates the nerve.
After activating, the vagus nerve sends a signal upward, through the spine to the brain, telling the brain to stop the stress response and activate the relaxation response.
The brain can then reduce the stress response, and everything associated with it (fast heart rate, that nervous jittery/buzzing sensation, foggy thinking) and replace it with the relaxation response.
This whole process takes about 45 seconds. That’s right – we can literally calm down and reclaim a sense of control over our emotions, thanks to how our bodies are naturally built, in less than a minute. Amazing, right? As easy as this sounds, some clients have a hard time focusing on breathing alone.
It can be difficult for anxious people to simply focus on breathing and find the full relaxation they’re looking for.
That’s where autogenic training
can be helpful.
Autogenic training is a mindfulness practice where the participant focuses on selected sensations in the body so they can achieve a state of deep relaxation. It’s been found to reduce stress and hyperarousal symptoms, and to increase self-regulation
This technique helps clients learn to reverse the stress response and induce the relaxation response.
To help you get started with autogenic training, download this FREE worksheet
that takes you step-by-step through this deep breathing and mediation exercise.